It’s every performer’s dream. To stand in front of the largest live audience you are ever likely to see and perform the national anthem. Last month I was invited by the AFL to sing Advance Australia Fair at the 2015 Grand Final. I knew it was honour to be asked but I simply can no longer sing the words “for we are young and free”.
Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to find a way to make it OK. I told the event organisers that I was available to perform but I made it a condition of my appearance that I would be permitted to replace the words “for we are young and free” with “in peace and harmony”.
To their credit the AFL gave my request consideration but decided that they were not able to openly support this change of lyric. So I made the only decision I could make – I turned down the opportunity to sing the national anthem in front of more than 90,000 people at the ground and potentially millions more watching on TV.
People aware of my career will know that I have sung the anthem for significant occasions in the past. So why not now?
The silence around Indigenous culture
Let me be clear: it was an honour to be asked. The problem is, as an Indigenous leader I simply can no longer sing the words “we are young and free”. For that matter, as an Australian with a strong desire to deepen our nation’s understanding of identity and our place in the world, I believe we can and must do better.
Over the past half-century Australians have come to realise much about the persistence, sophistication and success of Aboriginal Australia. The 1967 referendum, the Bringing Them Home Report (1997) and the Apology to the Stolen Generations (2008) have all caught the nation’s attention and raised awareness of our shared history.
But many people have remained content to leave it there, to settle for what little information they received during school years. For such people, most of Australia’s Indigenous cultures remain unwrapped, unacknowledged and unexplored.
They are content to know that Indigenous culture exists without troubling themselves to find meaningful engagement. More worryingly, though not surprisingly, many still toil at a kind of all-consuming denial, which demands an extraordinary amount of commitment and energy to maintain.